The United States and Australia are building new embassies and offering tens of millions of dollars in cash to counter Chinese influence in the Solomon Islands after Honiara signed a new security deal with Beijing that Western officials say opens the door to China The gate of the military base is in the South Pacific.

But unless the West addresses the fundamental problems of health, education and unemployment that have eroded democratic institutions and enabled China to gain a foothold in this small South Pacific country of 700,000 people and the lowest human development index score, it will The strategy will not bear fruit worldwide, according to archipelago opposition politicians and community leaders who spoke to Al Jazeera.

The country’s deputy opposition leader Peter Kenilorea told Al Jazeera: “Putting money into the country is not what Solomon Islanders need, it’s actually in the hands of Prime Minister Sogavare and his pro-China groups, who will Use that money for political gain.” . “They’ll say that’s why we signed the deal with China, and now we’ve got all this money and attention.”

Celsus Irokwato Talifiru, political adviser to the governor of Malaita, Solomon Island’s most populous province, expressed similar sentiments.

“Australia has been our biggest donor since the 1970s and nothing has changed,” Talifiru told Al Jazeera. “There are a lot of development projects at the moment, but it’s ineffective because foreign aid is provided through the government and money simply doesn’t flow in, especially in rural areas where 80 percent of the population lives.”

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare defends his country’s security deal with China as necessary to resolve the archipelago’s ‘internal security situation’ [File: Reuters]

Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has defended the security protocols necessary to resolve the “internal security situation” in the archipelago, in the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Sogavare, who called foreign criticism of the deal an “insult”, also denied that China would be allowed to build a military base in the country, the site of two of the most important battles between the U.S. and Japanese troops in World War II.

“Our new friends are not pressuring us in any way,” Sogavare told parliament last month, adding that he had no intention of “getting involved in any geopolitical power struggle.”

While the official text of the agreement has not been made public, a leaked draft said Honiara could ask Beijing to send police and military personnel to the country “to assist in maintaining social order.”

A spokesman for Sogavare did not respond to a request for comment before publication.

China’s foreign ministry accused critics of “deliberately exaggerating tensions” over the agreement, calling it “normal exchanges and cooperation between two sovereign and independent countries.”

Aid and Infrastructure

China has been making progress in the Solomon Islands since it persuaded Honiara to stop diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in 2019. Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory.

Beijing has pledged millions of dollars in development aid and funded major infrastructure projects including the National Stadium, a gift for China to host the Pacific Games in 2023.

“We Melanesians have one thing, we only believe what we see,” a member of the Malaita youth council told Al Jazeera, requesting anonymity to avoid damaging relations with Western aid groups.

“The Chinese build big new buildings like the National Stadium — something we’ve never seen before. And they work fast. Whenever a MP asks China, they do it quickly, Because Chinese people are less bureaucratic and that’s how people here are. But in the West, there’s a lot of red tape. It takes months or years for anything to happen. So the Chinese approach is gaining popularity and winning people’s hearts.”

However, China’s generosity has also sparked concerns among some Solomon Islanders about so-called debt-trap diplomacy.

“They’re now talking about building 200 new Chinese cell towers, but our service provider says the whole country is covered, and either way, the towers won’t be free,” Kenilorea said. “We would have to pay $70 million, but they were sold to us as if there was some financial interest.”

“The same goes for the stadium and the country’s first synthetic sports track,” he added. “The building is free, but we have to maintain it. But we can’t even maintain grass tracks or sports fields. Just keeping the lights on is difficult for us. Beijing loves big things, and our government has embraced it. It, instead of focusing on health and education.”

According to the Malaita Youth Council, Western donors can make a real difference in the lives of Solomon Islands people and mitigate China’s growing influence in basic services such as health and education.

“We have one of the highest rates of premature infant mortality in the world and one of the lowest rates of high school graduates in the Pacific,” said a spokesman for the Malaita Youth Council. “If Western donors can address these issues, it will change perceptions and pose a real challenge to Chinese influence.”

People want “simple things” like access to electricity, which most Solomon Islanders don’t have, Kenilorea said.

“These kinds of projects are already being done, but if massively scaled up, they will create quick wins for the West,” he said.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison vets a group of Solomon Islands police after arriving in the country in 2019
Australia and US are building new embassies and offering tens of millions of dollars in cash to counter Chinese influence in the Solomon Islands [File: Darren England/EPA-EFE]

Talifiru province, which has clashed with the central government over its growing ties to Beijing, said Western donors should invest in civic education in the Solomon Islands to counter ticket-buying he claims was funded by China. Sogavare’s government rejects baseless bribery allegations and suggests such charges are aimed at discrediting it “to justify criminality and political hooliganism.”

“Our democracy is one-sided and riddled with corrupt cash,” Talifiru said. “Our people don’t participate in elections. They just vote for people who lure them with money. When rich countries like China show interest, that’s the danger.”

“What we need is civic engagement,” he added. “Not just a workshop that comes and goes, but a permanent presence that creates momentum. You have to create the need for transparent government so people can say ‘look we’ve had enough’ and start making demands of their own. “

Kenne Lorea said the rise in public dissatisfaction could eventually lead to the cancellation of the security pact with China.

“It looks like the entire platform of the next election will be about China: if the government wins, Chinese activity in mining, logging and fishing will increase,” he said. “Basically, more development of our natural resources. If the opposition wins, we will review the security agreement with China.”

Kenny Lorea said Australia and the United States remained more influential among the public than China due to shared values ​​and history.

“JFK was here during the war. Since we’re 95 percent Christian, we already have shared values ​​and understanding,” he said. “That’s why the switch from Taiwan to China, a communist country with strong views on atheism, was so unpopular and had to be rushed through parliament.”